and the 50-year journey of
Winston Churchill’s cigar
|·The Winston Churchill cigar given to Paul Keane in 1961. |
PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL KEANE
·By Paul Keane
Posted: 06/08/16, 8:09 PM EDT | Updated: 39 secs ago
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes it isn’t — especially if it belonged to Sir Winston Churchill, the British prime minister who, as President John F. Kennedy said, “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle” to defeat Hitler and what Churchill himself labeled Hitler’s “gang of Nazi thugs.”
I know about that cigar because I had it in my dresser drawer for 52 years (in three states and six different homes) until four years ago, when I gave it away. No one in my family was a history buff or even interested in looking at it, let alone keeping it safe. I tried to give it to my alma mater,
where my own papers are located in their “Kent State Collection” (which I
helped found), but they didn’t want it, either. Yale University
What to do? Yale suggested the Churchill Archives Centre. I said, “Isn’t that like bringing oil to
Arabia? They probably have all the
Churchill stuff they need.”
On a lark, I emailed the Churchill Centre at
College in .
And guess what? The one thing they did not have was an actual Churchill cigar —
which by the way was about 9 inches long and made in Cuba — La Carona Habana. Cambridge, England
Even more gratifying is that they were enthusiastic about what they called my “back-story” — how I actually got the cigar.
How did I get it?
I was 16 years old, a junior at Hamden High School and I took an interest in Churchill from watching one of the first documentaries ever produced on TV in 1960, six consecutive Sunday nights from 10-11 p.m. (bonus: it was way past school-night bedtime!).
The series was called “The Valiant Years,” narrated by actor Richard Burton (one of Elizabeth Taylor’s six husbands) — who spoke all of the Churchill lines that helped save Western civilization: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” and “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,” and most famous of all, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
When I read in the paper that Churchill at 87 was on this side of the Atlantic vacationing on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, the Christina — then the longest yacht in the world at 325 feet — which would dock in New York at the 79th Street Boat Basin in a week, I asked my parents if I could use the money I earned mowing lawns to take the train to New York from our home in Mount Carmel and try to get a glimpse of him.
They said, to my astonishment, Yes! (By the way, I’m not sure I would have allowed a 16-year-old to go to New York by himself in 1961, but they did.)
When I got there, it rained and stormed — “hurricane-force winds” the news called it — and the seas were too rough for the huge yacht to dock, even in the
So I had to spend two days and overnight on the boat basin dock. I had dressed in a suit and tie so I looked presentable, and since I was 6 feet, 2 inches tall, I looked older than my teen age.
I had a $2 fold-up raincoat to protect myself from the storm. At one point Churchill’s nurse, Muriel Thompson, came ashore on a small Chris Craft used by Onassis to ferry people back and forth to the huge yacht bobbing in the
I told her I had been hoping to catch a glimpse of Churchill and she said she would see what she could do. When she came ashore again later that evening she gave me one of Churchill’s cigars, a note from him on House of Commons stationery and his handkerchief with his laundry mark “10” on it (Number 10 Downing Street? He hadn’t lived there for years). She and I and her fellow Chris Craft traveler, J. Peter Grace, owner of W.R. Grace steamship lines, drove into
for coffee. Manhattan
Later that evening, when Muriel Thompson and I couldn’t find an available cab in the rainstorm, I asked a policeman in a squad car to give us a ride back to the
79th Street Boat
Basin, saying, “This is Churchill’s nurse and she has to get back as soon as
possible.” Everyone in New York who could read
a paper knew Churchill was in New York and
stuck in the Hudson River on Onassis’ yacht.
They drove us through the wet and windy streets of the city. When we got there, Onassis’ Chris Craft had left for the Christina.
I knocked on the window of a tugboat moored in the
Street Boat Basin filled with sleeping firemen and
said the same magic words, “This is Churchill’s nurse and she has to get out to
the Christina.” Grumpily, they fired up their tug and brought us out.
Ironically for a fireman’s tug, their mast, with its string of electric lights, hit the Christina’s horizontal flagpole, which protruded from the side of the yacht, and sparks flew everywhere. It looked for a minute like a fire might start on the firemen’s tug itself. The men were shouting about the sparks in chaos as Muriel Thompson leapt onto the stairs hanging down the side of the yacht.
The next day, when 87-year-old Sir Winston Churchill was helped off the yacht (which had managed to dock in the now-calm seas), and was eased into a limousine, I ran up to the car and flashed him his famous “V-for-Victory” sign — and he flashed it back to me.
Little did I know at that time that in
that sign is the equivalent of an upraised middle finger in . (So
that’s what Churchill had been flashing Hitler all through the war!) You never
ask for two loaves of bread in America
with a forefinger and middle finger V-sign. You use your thumb and your index
finger. If not, you’re at risk of receiving a fist sandwich instead of two
loaves of bread. Britain
Anyway, Churchill Centre would love to have the cigar, they said in 2013, but they couldn’t offer me anything for it; their budget was small. I said fine. But I had discovered the postage would cost $190: could they pay that?
No — not even that.
I wanted the thing to have a permanent home, so I agreed to pay. But there was one other problem. Tobacco products could not be sent out of the country for some reason. Our resourceful postmistress in White River Junction,
, researched the matter and
discovered that a “single cigar” could pass inspection if it was declared “antique.”
So off it went — along with my $190. Vermont
It had become a bit frayed over 50 years and the Churchill Centre archivist had to trim about half an inch off the end. Here is the director’s letter.
“Sarah and I met this morning and carefully unpacked the cigar. I am delighted to confirm that, apart from a couple of small pieces that had come away from the frayed end, it is intact and looking in good condition. Sarah is now going to think about a safe way of displaying it that will prevent further deterioration or damage during handling. We will send you a receipt shortly. In the meantime, thank you once again for this unique item, and for sharing its fantastic back story.
“All best wishes,
It was signed by Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Centre.
The director wrote me again in 2013, saying, “The cigar now goes down a storm with visiting school groups.”
Nothing could please me more.
As a retired
English teacher who taught thousands of teenagers over 25 years, I am delighted
to think my story as a 16-year-old might interest other kids near that age. Vermont
The moral of this 50-year journey of a cigar is simple: Value is in the eye of the beholder.
Paul Keane is a 1963 graduate of
. He lives in Hamden
High School , where he
retired after 25 years of teaching high school English. Vermont